Corinne Kenwood / Sun Staff Photographer

November 7, 2017

Students Debate Puerto Rico’s Relationship with United States

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While the University is expecting to welcome up to 58 Universidad de Puerto Rico students for a free semester at Cornell in the wake of Hurricane Maria, faculty and students on campus hosted a panel to debate the very question of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.

“We need to begin by problematizing the whole issue of being ‘American citizens,’” said native Puerto Rican Prof. Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, anthropology and Latino/a studies. “Because we’re not. The basis for our citizenship is not constitutional.”

The panel, hosted by the Puerto Rican Student Association, aimed to leave audience members with “a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding our status as a commonwealth, as well as what independence and statehood would mean for the island and the United States,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

When asked what he wants audience members to take away from the event, PRSA chapter president Christopher Arce ’19 stressed that it is not a theoretical debate, but rather one that affects many lives daily.

“It is more than just a status question,” Arce said. “It has day-to-day consequences on how you treat human dignity.”

Arce also stressed that Puerto Ricans also give to the United States, including serving in the military.

Prof. Aziz Rana, law, began the panel by examining Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory, which has been a recent topic of discussion in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Rana noted that in wake of the hurricane, a common response was that Puerto Rico’s status seems “aberrational.”

Rana then delved into the history of Puerto Rico and the United States, including the 1901 Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell. Rana said in that case, Justice Edward Douglass White concurred that not all places in which the U.S. exerts power should be considered as part of the “American family.”

Rana further discussed legislation in the early 20th century that had a broad impact on Puerto Rico, including the 1920 Jones Act.

“[The Jones Act] has essentially transformed the Puerto Rican economy into an adjunct of American economic interest,” Rana said. “It has facilitated American business growth. But at the cost of a set of exploitative measures and practices that has been deeply extractive for the local Puerto Rican economy.”

Rana said the United States has continuously “economically immiserated the island while denying them political participation.”

Prof. Jamila Michener, government, then discussed Puerto Rico’s extreme poverty rate, unemployment rate and lower labor force participation rate. Michener said U.S. social policies do not adequately aid Puerto Ricans.

“Our social policies are not designed with Puerto Ricans in mind,” Michener said. “They are not tailored to their particular economic and social positioning.”

In addition, Michener said that U.S. social policies do not offer the same level of benefits to Puerto Ricans. These policies also take a long time to be effective in Puerto Rico.

Santiago-Irizarry, who is pro-Puerto Rican independence, added that the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is purely “statuatory,” explaining that Congress can legislate Puerto Ricans’ citizenship out of existence.

Arce, who indicated the lack of awareness among mainland Americans of Puerto Rican rights as U.S. citizens, said the recognition of Puerto Ricans as citizens is a crucial one with significant consequences.

“This doesn’t occur in a theoretical vacuum,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Santiago-Irizarry as saying the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is symbolic.